A volunteer picks up trash at Freedom Island, a marshland considered to be a sanctuary for birds, fish and mangroves in a coastal area of Las Pinas City, near Manila, Philippines. Few papal encyclicals have been as eagerly awaited as Pope Francis’ upcoming statement on the environment. CNS photo/Romeo Ranoco, Reuters

World awaits papal call to action on environment

  • May 17, 2015

Encyclicals are important for Catholics. Our theologians study them. Our pastors preach them. Sometimes we even read them.

But there has never been an encyclical like the yet-to-be published papal letter on the environment and climate change due out next month. Even the editorial board of The New York Times is waiting with baited breath. “The Pope is right to speak up for our planet, and the greater the impact the better,” the newspaper wrote in its April 29 editorial.

From Forbes Magazine to Der Spiegel, The Huffington Post to The Guardian, the world’s media has been full of analysis, speculation, foreboding and celebration of a papal document that hasn’t even gone to press.

Though nobody knows what will be in the document expected in June — and even Cardinal Peter Turkson, who wrote a tentative first draft for the Pope’s consideration last August, has said it would be “sciocchezza” (foolishness) to guess at the contents — Pope Francis has left the world in no doubt about his purpose.

Francis was disappointed by the results of last year’s international summit on climate change in Lima, Peru. Since then he has invested his office, his prestige and his political clout in moving the needle a little more definitely in the direction of substantial action at this coming December’s Paris climate change summit. The April 28 Vatican conference on climate change featuring United Nations General Secretary Ban Ki Moon was just part of the Pope’s climate campaign. At the Paris meeting the international community will aim to somehow replace or extend the Kyoto Protocol for reducing greenhouse gases.

As a politician and host of the July 7-9 Climate Summit Of The Americas in Toronto, Ontario Minister of the Environment Glen Murray is full of admiration for Francis’ political instincts.

“What His Holiness is doing, which is so remarkable whether or not you are a Catholic, he is bringing meaning and hope and faith and the sacred back into the conversation around our planet — how we live with each other and how we live with our planet,” said Murray. “That’s extraordinary.”

Murray thinks there’s nothing wrong with the Pope being political.

“While there’s no doubt any conversation is political by the very nature of it, part of the problem is that most of our conversations about the planet are not spiritual. They’re not about the sacred nature of where we live. They’re not about connecting to the fundamental meaning of our lives,” Murray said.

As an ex-politician, former Toronto Mayor David Miller admires the Pope’s political savvy. As executive director of World Wildlife Fund Canada, he relishes the kind of influence the admired leader of 1.2 billion Catholics can have.

“We’ve seen national governments paralysed on this issue and unable to act, or sometimes choosing not to act,” Miller said. “The intervention of the Pope speaking to both moral issues and the science could be one of the most important factors in trying to break that inability of national governments to agree on a course of action.”

Miller anticipates the Pope will build on the scientific theories about the human causes of climate change to question the morality of an economic system which relies on cheap energy from greenhouse-gas-emitting oil and coal. It’s the rich who benefit from the status quo and the poor who have to live through droughts, floods and crazy weather, Miller said.

“Climate change will tend to harm those who have the least. We need strong moral leadership on that,” he said.

Since the crisis in Darfur in the 1990s, the world has seen more wars fuelled largely or partially by competition for scarce water and agricultural land as weather patterns shift, said John Siebert, executive director of Project Ploughshares. To say nothing of Middle East wars over who controls the oil.

“The inevitable conflicts between people and communities will result in violent conflicts if we do not find ways to assist our brothers and sisters to meet these challenges and become more resilient in the face of looming climate crises,” Siebert wrote in an e-mail.

Siebert hopes the Pope acknowledges climate-fuelled war in his encyclical.

A Third Order Franciscan who works with young people, Colleen MacAlister is practically bursting with excitement as she anticipates the encyclical.

“Our young people have a deep desire to protect creation and our world. It is good to see the leadership exhibited by Pope Francis,” she said.

An encyclical about the environment from a Pope named Francis is everything MacAlister had hoped for when Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio stepped out onto the balcony above St. Peter’s Square as Pope Francis.

“Immediately we think of Gospel living,” wrote MacAlister in an e-mail. “St. Francis is synonymous with humble service and self sacrifice, animated by joy and peace, respect for all life — animate and inanimate.”

Though climate change and the environment might seem like a modern, current topic mainly grounded in science, it’s also a subject deeply grounded in Catholic spirituality and devotion, said Stephen Scharper, a University of Toronto theologian and anthropologist. Catholics who know St. Paul’s message to the Romans that “the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now” (Romans 8:22) will likely find that the Pope is speaking directly to them.

“All creation is part of that sacred heart,” said Scharper. “The divine love is involved in this creation in a way that perhaps we weren’t fully aware of. It recontextualizes some of these traditional symbols, but it doesn’t erase them and it doesn’t eviscerate them of their power. It just adds a new level of reflection and a new dimension to them.”

As a theologian and an ecologist, Scharper is hoping the encyclical will lay very particular emphasis on the traditional idea that creation is God’s first revelation — that creation comes first and has a value greater than what humans can use it for.

“We’ve acted as if it (creation) is secondary — as if nature is secondary to the economy, secondary to our salvation history, secondary to our catechesis. What I would like to see is the primary dimension of creation in our thinking, in our theology, in our approach to human justice issues,” said Scharper.

To many, connections between theology and climate science may seem like a stretch. But nobody is going to change the world or their lives because of another scientific measure of the receding ice pack in the Arctic or a reading of carbon parts per million in the Antarctic atmosphere. It’s what people fundamentally believe about themselves and God that really matters. And it’s religion that has the capacity to move people to act, according to Simon Appolloni, Brock University lecturer in Christianity and the environment.

“Time is running out for humans to get this right,” he said. “Our choice is to act radically now — and I mean radically, as mere tweaking will not do.”

What Appolloni calls “light green” Catholic preaching on stewardship and personal consumer choices (picking green label products at the supermarket) no longer fits in a world where climate change sometimes translates into war, famine and a vast divide between rich and poor.

“We need a dark green version of Catholic environmental teaching that understands the human as an integral part of a larger earth system,” wrote Appolloni in an e-mail.

It’s going to be difficult to get that dark green message across, especially in the richer parts of the globe, said Dennis Patrick O’Hara, Elliott Allen Institute for Ecology and Theology director.

“Saying to people you’re going to have to reduce your (environmental) footprint by 75 per cent — that’s huge,” said the University of St. Michael’s College theologian. “As soon as they hear that they just back off and say, ‘OK, you’re a nut. I don’t want to listen to you.’ ”

If the Pope’s message on the environment is going to reshape our thinking and our actions, it’s going to have to jettison some old language and find new words to convey our ideals. Specifically, O’Hara wants the Pope to stop using the word “stewardship.”

“We’ve got to get past the stewardship model,” he said.

For O’Hara, making humans stewards over God’s creation makes it difficult to read the Bible as a Catholic. If God has put us in charge, that makes God into some kind of absentee landlord who has split the scene, he said.

“That clearly has a sense of God being so transcendent that God is not imminent and part of our lives, or guiding and nurturing us here on the planet,” said O’Hara. “We don’t want that. It doesn’t fit.”

And just what exactly qualifies humans to be stewards?

“Earth did very well for four-and-a-half billion years before humans came along, so clearly it knows what it’s doing,” O’Hara said. “It doesn’t need us.”

But on the other hand, the Pope’s no magician and a 50,000-word letter to Catholics is not a magic wand.

“The reinvention of the human that is required to deal with this ecological crisis is enormous. It won’t be done by a single statement or a single act,” he said.

“One of the things that has made Francis such a powerful figure is that he is a truth teller,” said University of Dayton theologian Kelly Johnson. “I hope that he will in fact find other terms to use than stewardship, other moral arguments to make than that.”

If humans ever were stewards of the Earth, it’s pretty clear they should be fired, said Johnson.

“He might talk about us as penitents,” she said. “The damage has been done. If you’re going to be truthful about where we are now with climate change and environmental issues, then we need to be frank with each other about the fact that we have screwed up… How can we repent for what has been done?”

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